UNLV (0-0) at Arizona (0-0) (ET)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Arizona Stadium (56,029) -- Tucson, Arizona. Television: ESPN. Home Record: UNLV 0-0, Arizona 0-0. Away Record: UNLV 0-0, Arizona 0-0. Neutral Record: UNLV 0-0, Arizona 0-0. Conference Record: UNLV 0-0, Arizona 0-0. Series Record: Arizona leads, 2-0.
GAME NOTES: Winners of six straight season openers, the Arizona Wildcats try to carry that over into 2014 as the squad begins the campaign against the UNLV Rebels at Arizona Stadium on Friday night.
Arizona, which is 15-1 when playing home games on Labor Day weekend dating back to 1983, is led by third-year head coach Rich Rodriguez. Last season, the Wildcats began with three straight non-conference wins and were 6-2 after eight games, but then lost three of the final four regular-season bouts. The squad was a mere 4-5 against the rest of the Pac-12 Conference, yet still found a spot in the postseason against Boston College in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana.
The Wildcats whipped up on the Eagles, 42-19, giving them eight wins for the second straight season for the first time since 2008-09.
As for the Rebels, they've had to endure several disappointing seasons under head coach Bobby Hauck, the team winning just two games in each of the three years leading up to 2013. UNLV struggled out of the gate with back-to-back non-conference blowouts, but then put together a four-game win streak and five victories in the next six games in order to get on track.
Thanks to wins over Air Force and San Diego State in late November, the Rebels earned themselves a place in the postseason for the first time since 2000 when they defeated Arkansas in the Las Vegas Bowl (31-14). While UNLV ended up bowing to North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl (36-14), it still finished with a record over .500 for the first time in more than a decade. Against the rest of the Mountain West Conference, the Rebels were 5-3, putting them in a tie for third place in the West Division standings with San Jose State.
The Wildcats have yet to bow to UNLV, winning both previous matchups. The last battle took place a season ago at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, with the Rebels being crushed under a 58-13 decision.
After losing Caleb Herring at quarterback, the Rebels figured to have Nick Sherry taking over in 2014, but he was beaten out by junior college transfer Blake Decker in the middle of August. A NJCAA Second-Team All-American at Scottsdale Community College last season, Decker threw for 4,241 yards and 47 touchdowns as a member of the Fighting Artichokes.
Decker will have the luxury of throwing to senior wide receiver Devante Davis, a member of the 2014 preseason Biletnikoff Award Watch List. Also a preseason All-MWC selection who is up for Maxwell Award as well, Davis turned 87 catches into 1,290 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago, and became the first player in program history to have at least 2,000 yards receiving over a two-year span.
Although he appeared in just nine games in 2013, Marcus Sullivan is also back and should help spread the field after notching 45 grabs for 505 yards and five TDs.
UNLV cannot avoid filling the hole left by Tim Cornett at running back, one of the most successful players at the position in school history. Unfortunately, there are a lot of new faces lining up to take hand- offs, whether they be freshmen or transfers, which could put a damper on the progress of the offense as a whole. Keith Whitely and George Naufahu appear as likely candidates to assume some of the risk, along with David Greene.
Having a member of the secondary lead your team in total tackles is generally not the way you draw it up in the game plan, but that's how the chips fell for the Rebels a year ago as free safety Peni Vea led the way with 108 stops in 13 games. Vea, who had three tackles for loss and a couple of interceptions, will reprise his role for the Rebels, as will five other returning starters on the defensive side of the ball.
Cornerback Kenneth Penny may not have had nearly as many tackles as Vea, finishing with 32, but where he did excel was in covering men down the field, resulting in a team-best 18 pass breakups. Tajh Hasson (49 tackles) also has a knack for playing the ball (11 breakups), as well as creating something out of nothing with four forced fumbles.
With the loss of Tyler Gaston (7.0 tackle for loss, 5.5 sacks), the Rebels have to replace their leader in both of those departments. The squad doesn't have a single returning player who had more than two sacks a year ago, and that could be a huge concern unless someone steps up and becomes more of a heavy hitter further up the field.
One aspect of the game that the defense will have to focus more on is stopping opponents on third down. A year ago the team ranked 117th in the country in allowing foes to convert at a rate of 47.6 percent.
While he was listed at the top of the depth chart for the Wildcats, it wasn't until just a few days ago that coach Rodriguez made it official by naming redshirt freshman Anu Solomon his starting quarterback for the opener. Solomon, who hails from Las Vegas coincidentally, threw for 2,849 yards and 35 touchdowns as a high school senior in 2012.
Solomon's key targets down the field will be Nate Phillips, Cayleb Jones and David Richards. Phillips, a slot receiver, is the top returner among receivers for the Wildcats after posting 51 catches for 696 yards and seven touchdowns, all of which led the program a year ago.
In addition to getting Solomon comfortable in the pocket, the other issue facing Arizona is that of replacing running back Ka'Deem Carey who was a huge workhorse for the program in 2013 with his 1,885 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground. Carey also caught 26 passes for 173 yards and a score, raising his value even higher.
Terris Jones-Grigsby, who played primarily on special teams a year ago, is getting a shot at filling some very big shoes left by Carey, with Adonis Smith and Nick Wilson preparing to take some carries as well.
On defense, the Wildcats have lost a considerable amount of punch, placing even more pressure on safety Jared Tevis who was already a key figure for the squad. Tevis is the top returning tackler who made 83 stops a year ago, adding a team-best three forced fumbles as well.
Reggie Gilbert, a defensive end who notched four sacks and seven tackles for loss, will be a focal point of the front line once more, although the team would like to squeeze more than just 34 total tackles out of him this season.
Thanks to Carey, the Wildcats were ranked 11th in the nation in rushing last season (264.9 ypg), but the team is bound to take several steps backward in that department, which could give the Rebels an outside chance at making this meeting a bit more respectable.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Arizona 38, UNLV 17Game Date and Time
Friday, August 29, 10:30 p.m. (ET).